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Increasing Female Representation in the Sports Business Industry

Dr. Janet Fink

Editor, the Journal of Sport Management for NASSM, NASSM’s executive council, and Professor of Sport Management at UMass Amherst

American girls and women are participating in sports and physical activity more than ever before. Our female athletes dominate in international competition and women comprise nearly half of fans of major sport leagues. And yet, men still dominate the sports business industry.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) produces a report card for gender and racial hiring amongst the major sport leagues and other sport industry categories. To receive an “A,” an organization must employ 44.1 percent women, while 30.6 percent results in a “C,” and less than 24 percent results in an “F.” 

The WNBA was the only organization that received an “A” in the latest report. The NBA received a “B,” MLS a “C,” NFL a “C+.” Collegiate sports as a whole received a “C+,” however, D1 FBS leadership and sports media received an “F.” 

A closer look at the data paints an even bleaker picture as the percentage of women in higher-level leadership positions in these organizations is much lower. Further, viewing the reports over the years shows that “progress” for women in sport leadership positions has been woefully slow. 

Strong representation

The North American Society for Sport Management (NASSM) is the academic governing body for those who study the sport industry and teach in sport management programs across North America. The purpose of this society is to “promote, stimulate, and encourage study, research, scholarly writing, and professional development in the area of sport management”. 

Given the statistics cited above regarding the sports industry, one might think men dominate the leadership of this organization, but that isn’t true. While NASSM still has work to do in improving diversity and inclusion, since its inception in 1985, it has experienced strong female leadership as faculty members Janet Parks, Beverly Zanger, Joy DeSensi, and Janet Kootz were four of the organization’s 11 founding members. 

The organization has a greater percentage of male membership (57 percent), but women comprise nearly half of the current executive council, which was typical for past NASSM executive councils as well. 

I am currently the editor-in-chief of the organization’s top scholarly journal and I am the sixth woman (out of 12) who has served in this role. Similarly, our editorial board is nearly a 50-50 split between men and women. Additionally, our top academic award, the Zeigler, has been awarded 31 times and a female scholar won the award 15 of those times.

Empowering leadership

In such a male-dominated field, how has NASSM been able to accomplish this? The participation of strong, thoughtful female academics in the founding of NASSM certainly paved the way. 

Further, each year our nominating committee is tasked to establish an equitable slate of candidates for each open position — thus, there are always women on the ballot. Because the executive board typically has a strong female presence, the women on the board feel comfortable voicing their perspective, which allows for greater thought diversity on issues relative to the organization. 

In a move that seemed small at the time, one of our members, Heidi Grappendorf, founded a group called Women in NASSM (WIN) in 2004. In that inaugural year, there were 8 members — today there are over 300. 

Grappendorf formed WIN as a knowledge-sharing and networking group, but it became much more than that. It is a group that makes NASSM feel much more inclusive and accessible for many members, particularly newer female members of the organization. 

Blueprint for success

I realize our small academic organization is different from the sports organizations we study but it provides an example of an equitable sport organization in terms of gender. Many of our members have studied the lack of female leadership in sport organizations; the various causes and possible solutions, and to be sure, there are no “easy fixes.” 

But the sports industry needs to develop a greater sense of urgency around this situation as progress has been too slow given the other advancements made by women in sport. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to learn more about the research our members have conducted in this area.

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